Schools fret over sermonettes

Sunday, December 20, 1998

Most Americans agree that public-school officials shouldn't promote or
denigrate religion. But should students be allowed to deliver a religious message to a captive audience of classmates in a public school?

This week a California judge said “no” — upholding a decision by school
administrators to bar a valedictory speech with extensive religious content. And in Pennsylvania last month, a superintendent prevented a student from reading part of an announcement that contained religious views over a school's public-address system.

These aren't cases about students discussing their faith with one another. Most legal experts agree that during the school day students have the First Amendment right to share their faith with their classmates, pray alone or in groups, read their scriptures, and express religious views in a class discussion (if, of course, it's relevant to the topic).

But there's deep disagreement about religious expression by students before a captive audience at school events or over the public-address system.

Consider the valedictorian in California. He wanted to deliver a speech at graduation that was much like a sermon. “For with God,” he planned to say in part, “you will find eternal happiness and absolute success in all that you do.” His principal wouldn't allow it.

The announcement in Pennsylvania was an invitation to a memorial service from the family of a student who had just died in a tragic accident. “For reasons we must never try to understand in this life,” said the original text, “our creator has seen best to take her back. Let's not question this intervention.” The superintendent allowed the student to read the invitation, but cut the religious sentiments.

These are tough issues. One side argues that by allowing religious activity such as sermons or prayers at school events or over the public address system — even when led by students — school administrators are put in the position of endorsing religion and compelling people to participate in religious activities.

Not so, replies the other side. Student speech isn't government speech. Religious speech by students is protected speech — and it shouldn't be censored by school officials.

Is there any common ground?

In the case of the valedictorian, I would argue that the First Amendment should protect religious references in the speech. But when the speech becomes a sermon (admittedly not always an easy line to draw), the school is put in the position of sponsoring worship or proselytizing. Remember that schools review what student speakers are going to say — with good reason. Allow the student to refer to his or her faith, but not to issue a call to faith or worship.

Some school districts try to get around the appearance of endorsement by creating a “free speech forum” at school-sponsored events, during which time students are free to express themselves religiously or otherwise. But such a forum would have to be open to all kinds of speech (including speech critical of religion or the school), a risk few school districts are willing to take.

The announcement of the memorial service strikes me as a different matter. I understand the concern of school officials: If religious views are allowed in this announcement, then other religious or anti-religious views might also have to be permitted in other announcements to a captive audience of young people.

But I very much doubt that brief references to religious faith by a student — especially during a tragedy — would be heard by classmates as school endorsement of religion. Why not simply allow the message to be read? After all, it didn't come close to being a sermon or prayer. The superintendent overreacted.

Getting this right isn't easy — especially since the courts remain divided about how much religious expression by students before a “captive audience” is permissible under the First Amendment. The challenge for school officials is to protect the religious speech of students without putting the school in the position of either inculcating or inhibiting religion.